In our last lesson, we talked about “Litmus Testing” for what is “good” and what is not – as God revealed it to us in His Word. As life gets more complex and compromises are often hidden inside beautifully deceptive packages, we need help with sorting out truth. There is perhaps no area of modern life that has been as compromised in my lifetime as that of human sexuality – so we will all need constant guidance and help on that area of our lives as well… and we are fortunate that God was not silent on these vital issues.
Let me say with both respect and appreciation that there are some who will feel church is not an appropriate venue for this kind of a frank discussion. Yet, from the earliest part of the Bible, God did not separate discussions of sexual morality from the rest of the discussion of our desires and our needs. Laws of the use of our bodies were as routine as dealing with mold on the tent or telling lies to your neighbor. A beautiful part of our Puritan heritage was to add a modicum of special respect and etiquette that inadvertently led to a hiding of the subject of human sexuality from common speech. Let’s understand and respect what that did for our society, but let us also quickly recall that the Puritan memories don’t make the rules for the church – the Word of God does. In that same vein, there are many things the world addresses that I am simply unwilling to carefully think about, let alone discuss with you. Perversion is a reality, but I don’t need to explore it in order to learn what God says is good and acceptable to Him regarding the use of my body. With that is mind, let’s take the next few weeks in the Corinthian letter and look at what God said about this subject of sexuality and the sacred circle. The city addressed was easily the most sensually sin-soaked center of its day – and was well known to be so. At the same time, God’s Word on the use of the body was pure, wholesome and helpful. Here is the truth from God’s Word…
Key Principle: Our sexuality and its moral uses were planned by the Creator of our body.
It occurs to me that sexuality has been tied both in the Word and by our world to romance – and that isn’t a bad thing. It shows that we value, not only reproduction, but God’s inborn and holy desire for propagation of life and entrenchment of the family. Let me illustrate… The older among us may recall that Jack Benny played a cheap man, what was called a “skin flint” on television. Yet, by all accounts, he was in life, a generous and loving man. One author shared a true story about the entertainer this way:
“He was rather shy when he was young. One day at work he saw a young lady that greatly attracted his attention. But he was too shy to speak to her. So he went to the florist & ordered one red rose to be sent to her without any card enclosed. And every day he repeated that order. Well, after 4 days of receiving one red rose each day, the young lady went to the florist & asked who was sending them. The florist told her that it was some guy who worked where she did by the name of Jack Benny. “Yeah,” she said, “I think I know who he is.” So she searched Jack out & asked him why he was sending her those roses. He told her that he wanted to ask her out, & she accepted his invitation. And other dates followed that first one. But still, every day, she continued to receive one red rose. Then Jack & Mary got engaged, & Mary figured that the red roses would stop. But still they came. Finally, they were married, & even on the honeymoon she continued to receive one red rose each day. But once the honeymoon was over, she figured that the roses would stop. But month after month, then year after year, all their married life, every day without fail she received a red rose. Finally, Jack Benny died. But the very next day, here came another red rose. Thinking that maybe the florist somehow hadn’t heard, she called to tell him of Jack’s death & that he could now stop sending the roses. He answered, “But you don’t understand. Before he died, Jack made all the arrangements. You’ll receive one red rose every day for the rest of your life”.
Who doesn’t see gift of the roses as a loving act? I think we all do. Jack’s marriage was, to him, about giving to his wife and making her feel special all her life. What a great picture! I only wish I could boast I had done as well.
Here is the point: One of the greatest opportunities for expression of choice we make in our lives (at least in the west) is our selection of a life partner in marriage. As we are growing up at home, life isn’t really about OUR choices. We go to church if our mom or dad makes us go. We turn in our homework because we don’t want to get in trouble with the school. Yet, in time, we grow up. One of the key areas in which our growth shows, particularly in our teen years, is that of our chosen RELATIONSHIPS. We start to show OUR values by OUR friend choices and eventually our dating choices. For many, this culminates in the choice of a mate. It offers the world, perhaps the clearest picture of our real values when we make such a choice.
Here is a vital truth: More than any other single factor, our external choices are a reflection of our inner character.
People can deny that, but we do what we do, more often than not, because we make choices based on urges and desires. The desires we choose to indulge and the disciplines we choose to maintain are character statements of our inner belief system. If we choose to marry – it is a character statement. How we behave on our way to the altar is a character statement. Who we choose to join there is one as well. Our values are exposed in our choices, and God’s Word has addressed the shaping of those values. The verses we will look at in this lesson make clear that…
Our sexuality and its moral uses were planned by the Creator of our body.
Here is another essential truth: God makes the principles and standards clear – but it is up to the church to teach them and the believer to choose to live them. God’s truth will clarify our choices and clear the path to pleasing Him with our lives.
Look Back: The First Part of the Letter (1 Corinthians 1-6):
As we have been studying the first letter to the church at Corinth, we noted the first part of the letter contained:
• Issues that he heard about from a friend concerning their divisions and struggles as a congregation (1 Corinthians 1-4);
• Issues that were the worst kept secret in the first century churches about morality and legal problems of the Corinthian believers (1 Corinthians 5-6);
• Answers to a series of questions the believers wrote to Paul concerning (1 Corinthians 7-16).
The way we examined them was in terms of themes that Paul addressed with the people. On the way to the questions that Paul answered concerning sexuality, marriage and divorce, Paul already addressed three other issues:
1) Believers at Corinth were caught up in “misplaced affection” for their leaders and fighting in divisions representing differing ways of viewing issues. Paul wrote: “It is not the MEN we follow, but it is the MESSAGE. That deserves our first allegiance. (1 Cor. 1-4)
2) Their misplaced affections were also evident in their misplaced VALUES. They were boastful of their acceptance of open immorality, proud of their LOVING SPIRIT. Paul wrote: “It is not the LOVE that is our first commitment, but the TRUTH. (1 Cor. 5)
3) The believers were further demonstrating their misplaced values in accepting the STANDARDS of the world. The issue was the taking of another brother to the city courts to be judged by godless men. Paul wrote: “It is not the standard of the WORLD we use, but the judgment of the WORD we trust.”
A Look Ahead: The Second Part of the Letter (1 Corinthians 7-16):
The second section of 1 Corinthians was wholly dedicated to answering questions received from that first century church. As we dive into the text, let me offer this encouragement:
Our generation is desperate for clarity, and they can see it in us – if we will walk in the truth of God’s Word. The lives of obedient believers can shine like the sun to point to decency in a dark world. We can stand in light and happily reflect the benefits of clear sight. If we fail to do so, we become like a cloudy day – and the sundial showing the lateness of the hour isn’t clear to the world around us. We may not be able to change the world– but we can, and must take responsibility for one citizen– ourselves. We can live the truth, and without a judgmental spirit our lives will draw people toward the light. We can do so in our personal choices, our language, our modesty, our fidelity in marriage, our concern for personal deportment. We need new instruction far less than stiff resolve to choose a path of obedience that was once more common among people of the faith of Jesus Christ. It is time to light up!”
In Corinth, being a “light” meant understanding sexuality and relationships. I don’t think that was a bad place to start for them, and I think it is a pretty good place to start from use as well.
The problem with the second section of the letter is that Paul turned his attention to an apparent question list sent that we no longer possess – so we guess at the questions by looking at the answers. Commentators have longed to have that list, but we can only surmise the list’s composition by looking carefully at Paul’s answers. What may help us reach that end is to:
1) Cut the text into the portions that seem to address differing questions;
2) Understand the problems that Corinth had in that time.
Let’s start with a pair of scissors and do some “cutting”. One way to apportion the text is by using the phrase that seems to suggest an answer to a new question appears to be the words “Now concerning” seen in 7:1
• 1Co 7:1 Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.
• 1Co 7:25 Now concerning virgins I have no commandment of the Lord: yet I give my judgment, as one that hath obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful.
• 1Co 12:1 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant.
• 1Co 16:1 Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye.
Now, for our second step, (i.e. “understanding the contemporary problems of Corinth”) we require a little understanding of the times in which the text was written.
Within the sexuality and relationship question list of 1 Corinthians 7:1-24, there appear to be several different groups referenced:
First, there were unmarried people, referred to in some translations as “virgins” because the Biblical standard of purity in sexual relationship was maintained in Paul’s writing, as well as the fact that many translators chose to keep that term.
Second, there were married people of one of the four types of marriage available under Roman law. Since every Corinthian knew the four marriage tyes, we should as well (to really understand what he was talking about):
• Contubernium: “tent marriage” mating of slaves for desired characteristics of a new breed. This was non-contractual as slaves were considered property.
• Usus: “common law marriage” accomplished by one year together. This practice was common, though not legally contractual.
• Coemptio en manum: “pleasurable service women” – the purchase of a woman from her father, particularly to fulfill his debt. This may be a “second mate” for the purchaser. In some cases, the woman was free to leave the house after several years of “pleasurable service”.
• Confarretio: a contractual public ceremony from which we get our own.
Third, some people in Corinth were divorced and alone.
Fourth, some were widowed and alone.
Finally, there were divorced and remarried coming to Christ in a second marriage.
Can you imagine being among the first century believers in Corinth that met in the atrium of a family villa, sitting around the fountain and listening to a reading of these words of the Apostle? Ladies, can you place yourself over by the Glauke Fountain house, filling pots with water and having a discussion – older and younger believing women together.
Listen in: “They say persecution is coming. Should I stay single? Is single more holy? What about marriage, is it always for life? Is divorce a sin in my newfound faith? Can I remarry if I was divorced?”
In some ways, it probably sounds like people who are young in the faith sitting at Starbucks today. Who doesn’t talk about this subject in our modern world? Let’s look at the text in a question and answer format, surmising the questions on the basis of the response of Paul, under the Spirit’s careful guidance.
A Look Within: Question One
Paul began with a bit of a proverb on celibacy: 1 Corinthians 7:1 “Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman.”
Perhaps what the church wrote to Paul asking for clarification was something like: “Is marriage God’s plan for every man or woman who desires to be used of Him, especially in light of the rising persecutions?”
If you read the Epistles, it is clear that Paul expressed a high view of marriage, and he grew up in a Jewish setting where marriage was honored and stressed. What was probably not well known by believers at the time was the truth that was taught by Jesus – that singleness may also please God.
Here is the point: Believers are NOT incomplete if they are not married, if God has ordained a single lifestyle for them. The word GOOD leaves no room for doubt about this. Jesus said it this way:
“For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.” (Mt. 19).
The answer to the question of marriage or not is this: it depends on your CALLING by the One Who made you.
Specifically in the context of rising persecution, Paul had evidently made a number of statements about remaining unmarried. As you continue to study 1 Corinthians, we will see them pop up. Paul believed in marriage, and knew the institution was a GOD THING, but he was wise about the times he lived in. The Bible commentators Jamieson, Fawcett and Brown note the use of the term “GOOD for a man not to touch” (kalos) would be rightly translated by the term “EXPEDIENT” – as they feel Paul was primarily concerned with troubles of the world.
The point that may have been difficult for believers in Corinth – both Romans of pagan background and of Jewish – was that singleness could be celebrated.
Some of us have been called to stay single for the glory of God. If you understand the Law of God, and the timeless principles it revealed in Leviticus 18, you are already aware that sexual activity is prohibited for the single in spiritual reality, the same way it would be for a castrated eunuch physically. That may sound tough, but it is like every other aspect of our lives – they must fall into harmony with God’s revealed choice for us. Some have the HIGH HONOR of remaining single and focusing all their energies, dissipated in romance, toward obedience and love of the Father in Heaven. Not all can do this, for not all were given the gifts to carry the responsibility. By the same token, others were given the HIGH HONOR of sharing life with another person. They were called to do so, and they should fill their post with JOY.
Paul went on to address sexual expression and marriage definition. Note how the point appears to turn into a discussion about physical desires.
1 Corinthians 7:1b “…for a man not to touch a woman. 2 But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. 3 The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
It appears a number of smaller questions are being answered in these few verses…all were issues regarding sexual expression and marriage:
First, there is the desire question. Should sexual desires be a part of the decision making for marriage? The answer to that appears to be a YES.
1 Corinthians 7:2 says “But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband.”
I suspect just as the first question regarded the value of celibacy versus marriage, this verse is dealing with one of the basic values involved in the marriage union:
Is sexuality simply sinful bodily behavior, or does it have a place in the life of a believer?
The term “porneia” used here for “immorality” is that from which we have added the English term “pornography”. It is normally used in the Bible in terms of illicit sensuality – overt sexual rebellion from God’s standard. At the same time, saying that marriage can help someone avoid overstepping God’s sexual boundaries is an open admission that we are sexual beings, and that such a desire when promoted on the streets of Corinth so completely, will be an issue if we simply act like the desires are not real. The church has tried that – it didn’t work because it wasn’t supposed to work that way. Go back to the verses again… Paul made clear several truths:
Should my sexual expression be only in the context of marriage?
1 Corinthians 7:1b “…for a man not to touch a woman.” In times of persecution, the church may advise people to think carefully about abstaining from marriage – that is the point of verse 1.
A simple reading of the text reveals that Paul must have been asked about sexual contact for the believer. In addition to affirming celibacy for those who are called to this (particularly in persecution), the implications of the first five verse of the chapter are that God intended the physical expression of sex for the marriage bed, and that any other place for it was considered acquiescing to the temptation of the enemy – an undesired state for an obedient believer.
Remember that noble Romans were raised with the rights of “coemptio en manum” partners – or pleasurable service persons. By the first century, women were also indulging in this system with male slaves. Paul argues that although the practice was LEGAL and well accepted culturally – it was not acceptable for the believer. On the face of the reading, Paul discounts all other sexual expression beyond the marriage bed. Each man and each Christian woman would find only ONE place to express themselves sexually, with the single partner they married. They are to have, each one, “their own spouse”, thus eliminating sexual slave use.
Is there a specific definition for marriage in terms of number of partners and the biological sexuality of each partner?
1 Corinthians 7:2 “But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband.” Regardless of the world’s re-defining of marriage – the Bible’s final word on the intent of the Creator was this definition: One man to one woman in loyalty and fidelity – that is the point of verse 2.
Though Paul is not writing for the purpose of defining marriage as one man and one woman, he clearly upholds the standard found throughout the Bible. God created one woman from and for one man in Genesis. Jesus affirmed it was so in the beginning, and it was the intent of God to have that single union of a man and a woman that left their home and became “one flesh”. Paul reaffirms that position by stating that “each man has his woman” and “each woman has her man”. He calls them “husband” and “wife”. There is no room for a man with a male partner in this passage, nor a woman with a female partner.
Clearly, even in the backdrop of widespread cultural acceptance of homosexuality, the Apostle saw marriage as between one man and one woman – and nothing else.
Let me be clear: It is possible to argue that America does not want to define marriage based on the Bible (though I would disagree). It is even possible to argue that the Bible is wrong about marriage – an ancient document of chauvinistic men (and I would disagree again). What is NOT POSSIBLE is to argue that the text is ambiguous about marriage as defined by one man and one woman with no other possible definition (1 Cor. 7:1-5). The text simply echoed what came before it in the words of Moses and Jesus, and then specifically eliminated any other marriage definition. Marriage was not just a “tradition”, it was a prescribed and defined practice in the Bible.
Is the timing and frequency of sexual union completely at the discretion of either the man or woman?
1 Corinthians 7:3 “The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” The couple should share sexual expression as a normal part of their marriage – for that is exactly where God intended it to be expressed. The desire is not sinful, and the abstaining is not holy. It is critically important that couples learn they surrender the power of singleness in marriage – and become part of one another.
Don’t miss the point Paul made here. That is not only sexually, but it is true financially – it isn’t “his money” and “her money” – it is “their money”. It is true in every way. We marry to become “one flesh” in emotional, spiritual and yes, physical ways.
It is often charged that Paul’s writings reflected a chauvinistic ideology and that he reflected the Roman male dominated society. On closer inspection, does he really? Paul argued that both the timing and frequency of sexual expression needed to be agreed on by BOTH the man and the woman. Paul argued that each OWED the other to continue sexual expression on behalf of the needs of the other. He did not make the woman solely subservient to males needs, and offers clear balance between the responsibilities of the two. Would a chauvinist give equal rights to the woman in such matters as sexual expression?
Is the physical desire for sexual expression sinful in and of itself?
Underlying the whole discussion is the notion some Christians have that the whole subject is fleshly, and therefore not holy. 1 Corinthians 7:5 “Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” That is not his point.
Paul instructed couples not to deny their need for physical expression. It is important that both the husband and the wife’s needs be taken into account. Here is the point: Sex is not sinful in the context of a marriage – abstinence may be. The Bible is pro-sex in the right context, and anti-sex in the wrong context. If we deny the physical side of our nature, we will face powerful temptations. Men and women who work hard to meet the needs of the other will find, on the whole, a happier partner with fewer distractions. Paul knew the temptations, because he walked the Roman streets.
There is something both strange and sad about a culture in which teenage sex is condoned so long as it is safe, while teenage smoking is denounced as categorically wrong – as if a single cigarette has anywhere near the same impact on your life. Sexual expression has become a mere issue of health and the law, whereas morality is reserved for such lofty things as tobacco.
Remember: The use of our sexuality was planned by the Creator of our body.
I want to close the first part of our discussion from this chapter with a word of encouragement. It does not escape my attention that we are living in a Laodicean culture in the church and a Sodom culture in the world. There seem to be many who worry about the way our country is going. They feel as though the pressures of the day, the obvious moral slide and the assistance of a Godless media pressing the point of the abandonment of belief in the Divine spell a new peril to the Gospel. They are wrong. It is not so. The Gospel does not usually begin its transformation in the human heart by a won argument, but rather by a loving gesture. It is not the work of human ingenuity that proves God’s existence and His intent to the pagan mind, but the work of the Spirit sparked by simple acts of love and kindness by those who love and follow Him.
Years ago a missionary to India contracted Tuberculosis and was placed in a sanitarium. He did not speak Hindi, but he desired to reach people, even in his exhausted and broken state. He attempted to pass some tracts to people in the hospital, but no one seemed even vaguely interested, even though the tracts were in the Hindi language. In his second week, late one night, a coughing fit awakened him from sleep. As he sat up to catch his breath, he noticed an old man across the room who was weak and shaky, but was trying to stand at the edge of his bed. The man trembled, and then sank back into the bed, tears rolling down his etched cheeks. He curled into the bed, and cried. Sick, the missionary sank back into his bed and soon drifted back to sleep. Over the next week, he noticed the way the nurses handled the old man. He recognized why the man was so desperate to get up in the night. The man needed a bathroom, and was too weak to take the journey to the small room at the end of the hall. The nurses cleaned him up briskly, and one even slapped the old man. They hated changing his bed, and yet didn’t seem to recognize the man had little choice. Night fell again, and this was a restless one for our missionary friend. He awoke several times. On one of the rustlings, this one about two in the morning, he noticed the old man struggling to sit up and make his way out of the bed yet again. After a feable attempt with trembling hands and arms, he slumped back into the bed and began to sob. Our missionary friend didn’t know what to do. He lay there for a few minutes. Then, as though it was obvious to him suddenly, he walked across the room to the old man. When the crying man looked up, he raised his hands as though a slap was coming from his roommate – something he rather expected. He didn’t get a slap, though; he got a smile. Our friend reached beneath the man and raised him up, carrying his now wasted body to the bathroom. He held the man under his arms and let the man care for himself with as much dignity as such a scene could offer. He carried the man back to his bed, and as he lay the man down, the old man kissed his cheek in gratitude. Our friend went back to his bed, and drifted off to sleep. The next morning, the missionary was abruptly awakened by a man who spoke to him in Hindi, which he did not understand. The man motioned to the table, requesting one of the tracts about Jesus. Our missionary friend obliged, but wasn’t sure of what was going on. A few days later, another missionary friend came to visit him in the hospital, a man who spoke the Hindi language and could communicate freely in the ward. In a few minutes, the visitor spoke to each of the men in the ward, and discovered that several of them had trusted Jesus Christ because of what they saw in our sick missionary friend. He didn’t speak a word – he simply showed love. That opened the door of the hearts of the hurting. The Word in their own language and the Spirit Who speaks the languages of all men did the rest.
Let me encourage you to take a stand on morality. The world, and many voices inside the “church movement” are telling you to capitulate. I am NOT. Know truth, live truth. Stand for truth. Know that those who MOCK US now will MARK US later as things fall apart – and if they stay on this course they surely will. At the very same time… Settle down. Stop and look up. Redemption isn’t found in Washington.
Stop worrying about the argument about marriage, sexuality, atheism, homosexuality – all of it. Stop thinking the campuses will turn all hearts from Jesus. Remember: the way Jesus is made clear is in simple acts of love to people who often will not find the world so kind. Those acts are just as powerful today as ever. God isn’t holding together one quintillion stars but struggling with the massive intellect of men on this little rock. Don’t forget, our job isn’t to convince people Jesus is the Way – as much as it is to SHOW people that He is the Way… and we are joyfully following Him home.